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Ukrainians want war crime reparations and investigations, new survey shows

In a poll of civilians in Ukraine’s frontline cities, 67% said they no longer see a ceasefire as feasible

Gerard Toal Karina Korostelina
21 September 2022, 3.12pm

Russia's rocket attack on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk in late July killed 20 people and injured over 50


(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Russia’s current war against Ukraine is a war against civilians. The discoveries of mass graves in recently liberated parts of the country underscore how Russian troops have systemically attacked civilians through mass killings, rape, executions and torture. Civilian death and refugee numbers are extremely high, though it will be some time before their full extent is clear.

What we do know is that Russian forces left behind mass graves with over 300 civilians in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, in April. Now 440 bodies have been discovered in Izium in Kharkiv region, many showing signs of torture. In Mariupol, combined Russian military operations are estimated to have killed more than 20,000 civilians through systematic bombing and fighting to claim the city.

We have limited knowledge of what is unfolding in the other regions seized by the Russian army since February. Pre-war public opinion research in Ukrainian government-controlled Donbas and beyond showed little support for a Russian invasion.

While many fled in the face of Russian terror tactics, some stayed at home. Few, if any, met Russian troops with bread and salt, a traditional welcome. Instead, residents berated and scorned them – in Russian. Indeed, these soldiers probably grasped very quickly that they were viewed as occupiers not liberators. Locals, whether sympathetic or not, are now bearing the brunt of Russian anger over the collapse of their heroic rescue fantasies.

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In modern war, noncombatants play a secondary role, yet their casualty rate is nearly always higher than that of actual combatants. These deaths are ostensibly a by-product of military operations and are so-called ‘collateral damage’ for military gains. Yet this is never really the case. Civilians are targeted to intimidate government forces to surrender, to break social resistance, incentivise collaboration and punish those who retain loyalties to the state they view as legitimate.

In wartime Ukraine today, Amnesty International, the International Criminal Court (ICC), the European Commission, the US Department of Justice, and journalists and human rights groups are leading investigations into war crimes. Over 40 countries are cooperating to support these investigations. Victimhood is a powerful currency in war: disputes are already intense over who gets to investigate and speak authoritatively about crimes against civilians.

Ordinary Ukrainians speak out

But what do ordinary Ukrainians think about justice and responsibility for crimes?

We organised a face-to-face survey of over 1,800 Ukrainians across three cities close to the regions where active fighting is taking place: Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and Poltava. Half of those surveyed were local residents and half were internally displaced people.

People in all three cities live with constant air raid alerts. Both Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro suffered rocket attacks that killed civilians in mid-July. They remain under attack. Three aspects of this survey are particularly relevant to questions of victimhood and accountability in wartime Ukraine.

First, we asked how the war affects the everyday life of these frontline Ukrainians.

Some 60% of residents of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia stated that they are affected by constant shelling, with 15% indicating they lacked adequate shelter. And 88% of respondents said that Russia’s invasion made them concerned about their own life and well-being. Those internally displaced, as one might expect, felt this threat more strongly than residents of the cities (92% vs 86%). Around 35% of displaced persons reported the destruction of their property and 10% said an immediate member of their family had suffered an injury.

In terms of exposure to direct physical violence, 33% of those surveyed said a friend or neighbour had been injured in the war, while 23% stated that a friend or neighbour had been killed. These numbers were higher (40% and 33%), again as one might expect, among those now living as internally displaced persons (a majority of these were from Donetsk oblast, mostly Mariupol). Even those without direct experience with violence were living in exposed conditions where the threat of sudden death from Russian missiles was omnipresent.


The town of Izyum in Kharkiv region was recently liberated by Ukrainian forces


(c) ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Wartime, of course, is a period of intense patriotic sentiment and national unity, with citizens rallying around their flag and other symbols of the nation. In interviews for surveys, which are sometimes (wrongly) interpreted as an encounter with a government authority, we find respondents are generally keen to demonstrate their patriotic feelings and loyalty to their country.

When we asked our respondents to weigh concerns about their own life versus concerns about Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the overall sample tended to prioritise Ukrainian territory over personal security.

Asked to agree or disagree with the statement “first and foremost we should be concerned about our own life and well-being, not questions of territory or geopolitics”, 39% disagreed and saw concerns for territory as more important, with 29% agreeing. Slightly less than a quarter saw territorial integrity and their own safety as equally important.

For our second question, we presented several dilemmas concerning possible outcomes of war crimes investigations. These questions pitted competing priorities against one another to understand which has greater resonance among frontline and displaced Ukrainians today.

Any peace settlement that does not provide some accountability for atrocities against civilians will likely have a difficult time taking hold

We found that reparations for war crimes were perceived as less important than the full cooperation of Russia with the investigation of war crimes by the UN or an international tribunal.

However, when we pitted material and symbolic restitutions against each other, financial compensation for the damage caused by the invasion was preferred to any formal apology by a Russian leader.

So frontline Ukrainians prefer criminal investigations into Russian war crimes to reparations for these crimes. However, financial compensation is preferable to a formal apology from the Russian leadership.

Finally, we asked whether a ceasefire would be sufficient to lead to a permanent peace settlement with Russia, given Russian gains in Ukrainian territory. Among our respondents, 67% did not see a ceasefire as feasible now and only 20% thought a permanent peace settlement was possible.

The further uncovering of war crimes against civilians will only strengthen this sentiment. Any peace settlement that does not provide some accountability for atrocities against civilians will likely have a difficult time taking hold.

Internationally, the war in Ukraine is no longer seen as a state war but a criminal one. The president of the European Union Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, recently suggested that Vladimir Putin must be held accountable for atrocities in Ukraine before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

While this proposal is morally just, it raises the stakes in this war for Putin – and makes establishing a ceasefire and resuming negotiations all the more difficult.

This research was supported by US National Science Foundation Award Number 2226741.

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